Can Ashanti, the singer who's had the No. 1 album and several hit singles this spring, really sing? We're about to find out. She's going to headline a show with Brian McKnight next Monday for the T.J. Martell Foundation here in New York.
You may remember Ashanti as the singer who backed up Jennifer Lopez on the remixed hit of "I'm Real." Everyone wanted to know if she was J.Lo's "ghost-singer." Her mother said no. We'll see.
How many times has this column written about questionable charities? Often, and most of them are in the music industry. Between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and NARAS’s MusiCares, you're probably thinking that no one in rock and roll is capable of an honest thought. And let’s not get started on Jacko and Shmuley.
All of those people make the folks at the T.J. Martell Foundation seem like Boy Scouts. Well, they're even better than that.
Next Monday Martell is holding its annual fund-raising dinner at the New York Hilton. Brian McKnight and a lot of other stars are performing in honor of Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television. A lot of money will be raised for cancer research and here's the kicker: all of it will go to cancer research.
Funny, huh? Last year, according to their IRS Form 990 filing, Martell gave away nearly $9 million to cancer research. And their money has been producing results: last month a drug called Aza C was found to have significant effect on Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a common precursor to leukemia.
Last year, Martell Foundation money contributed to the discovery of Gleevec, the breakthrough drug that has a profound effect on an another rare strain of leukemia.
At the same time, Martell's staff is small (10 people altogether) and appropriately underpaid. The foundation's staff expenses, including salaries, came to around $350,000 last year.
Consider that Suzan Evans Hochberg, director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, earns $300,000 a year just for picking the group's inductees. (Evans-Hochberg must grapple with the pressing question: should it be Michael Jackson or Paul Simon again this year?) Crystal Caviness, executive director of Martell, earns $54,000 a year.
T.J. Martell was a real person, which most people probably don't know. He was the 19-year-old son of Columbia Records exec Tony Martell. In 1975, T.J. was dying from leukemia at Mt. Sinai Hospital here in New York. His doctor, James Holland, told him and his father that there was no money for leukemia research.
"T.J. said, 'Dad, isn’t there something you can do?'" Tony Martell recalled to me yesterday. So dad put together a fundraiser at Buddy Rich's old nightclub in Manhattan.
No less than Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton and Mel Torme — the greatest jazz stars of all time — showed up and played for the audience.
The infamous Morris Levy, the record industry's now-dead legendary Rasputin, called and offered his services — which Martell politely declined. But the event was a success.
"We netted $50,000," Tony says.
In the first three years, Martell raised a million bucks. He thought his work was over.
"But Dr. Holland gave me a real guilt trip. He said, 'You can’t stop now!'" Tony says.
So Martell — who's continued to work at Columbia, now Sony, for the last 27 years — put together the foundation. Every year the group has its gala in honor of a record company executive — and that person invites his acts to perform at the event.
The best one this reporter ever went to was for Clive Davis several years ago at which Aretha Franklin gave a memorable — her perhaps best ever — show.
Unlike some other expensive gala dinners that lose money, the Martell dinner is an actual fund-raiser.
"We make money on the dinner," director Tod Minnich told me yesterday. "Everything is donated except for the food."
Tony Martell himself is now living with cancer, an irony that isn't lost on him.
"Dr. Holland says I can't call myself cured, just a survivor. I'm living with it," he told me. "The most important thing about the foundation is raising money. You don't have to be in the record business to donate. You can be from anywhere. When the government gives grants to doctors, it's with strings attached. Not us. We let our scientists go off the beaten path. And look, we're on a roll!"
P.S. If you want more information about the T. J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia Research, you can find them at www.tjmartellfoundation.org.